Thursday, December 20, 2012

Who Wants a Mentor for the New Year?

I'm convinced that career paths are a mix of luck and intentionality--and as my friend Christopher reminded me the other day,  it's sometimes hard to sort out the two.  For me 2012 has reflected that same mix: ongoing planning with my great Take 5 colleagues, an intentional partnership initiated by Rainey Tisdale for our new book, and some freelance luck that has led me to both incredible places (Newfoundland and Europe) and some great new colleagues.

But in the spirit of holiday abundance, I wanted to spread a little of that luck and intentionality around to you, dear colleagues.  I've been lucky (or intentional?) enough to have some tremendous mentors over the years, from a board president who taught me the meaning of patience and negotiation;  a board treasurer who showed me how to think about financial statements as narratives;   folklorists who helped me understand the deeper meanings and values of communities;  an entire range of colleagues in Ukraine who made it possible for me to understand that complicated place; my own visual family, Drew and Anna,  who always encourage me to look closer and so many more.

Every career path is unique,  but I do think I've learned some lessons over the years that I could share one-on-one with colleagues.  So here's the deal:  I'll be choosing one person to work with as a mentor in 2013.  We'll set out a plan for the year, meet monthly via Skype,  and explore where you want to go in your career and how you might get there.  I'll make introductions as I can,  recommend resources, and provide a listening ear for those thorny work problems.  This is open to anyone at any stage in their career:  you can be a student, an emerging professional, or a mid-career staffer trying to figure out what's next.  And of course, in this ever-more global world, you can be anywhere in the world.  The only thing I ask in return is that, over the course of 2013,  you write three blog posts for the Uncataloged Museum.

If you think this could be a useful process for you,  here's what you need to do.  By January 4send me an email with following:
  • Your current position and a brief description of how you got there
  • A memorable, outside of classroom, learning experience at any point in your life
  • Two or three key questions you'd like to address during the year and how you think I might be helpful
  • Brief responses to these few questions below from Twyla Tharp's Creativity Inventory:

  • What is the first creative moment you remember?
  • When you work, do you love the process or the result?
  • At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?
  • What is your ideal creative activity?  
Questions?  Of course, be in touch!
Image:  Set design for Holiday (act 2). Philip Barry. ca. 1940. Peggy Clark Collection. Music Division, Library of Congress.

Monday, December 3, 2012

When Was the Last Time You Were Surprised at a Museum?

Can you think back to a time that you were surprised--really surprised--by the approach a museum took to its subject?  Not just interested or intrigued, or even shocked?  But surprised by the creativity and ingenuity;  the ability to see things in new ways and turn our ideas about museums on their heads?  I think of the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv, Ukraine as one such place but last week I discovered another one in Paris:  the Museum of Hunting and Nature.  The majority of my previous experiences in Paris museums had been pretty conventional--but several US colleagues and the well-informed docents at Context Travel recommended a visit here and so I set off on a gray afternoon to see what I could see.
You just read that museum's name and thought, hmm,  guns and dead animals, right? Boring, right, unless you're really interested in guns and/or taxidermy.  Nothing new.  Absolutely wrong.  The museum was founded by Fran├žois and Jacqueline Sommer,  a wealthy couple interested in both hunting and conservation.  It's located in a majestic 17th century mansion in the Marais.  Their goal was to explore the relationship between humans and nature, through the lens of hunting.   Okay, still sounds pretty conservative in a museum sense, right?  Surprise!
The inventive installations in the museum combine contemporary art, taxidermy, the traditions of the cabinet of curiousities, historic objects, and what can only be described of as flights of fancy to create one of the most unusual museum visits I've ever been on. And by the way,  the use of media and new technologies was minimal.  Ideas, not bells and whistles, animate these spaces although the occasional roar can be heard and video unicorn spotted.
Rooms are organized in different ways--but some are organized by animals:  stags, wolves, dogs, and and bears.  In many rooms there's an exploratory cabinet, beautifully made, in keeping with the traditional furnishings of the room,  filled with skulls, art, and more.  Contemporary artists encourage the visitor to consider--and reconsider--our relationship with animals.  Historic works of art by Ruebens, Brueghel and others and artifacts create surprising juxtapositions.  
What does it mean when we encounter bar-tending tigers or human legs upon a dining table?   In each room,  clipboard labels (available in English as well) explain humans' changing views of this particular animal.  The museum was busy, but not crowded on the day I was there--and I saw looks of discovery on everyone's faces--and very nice guards who were very willing to interact with French speaking visitors,  pulling open drawers and encouraging conversation.
How were the staff inspired to create the magical unicorn room or the small room with the ceiling covered in owl feathers to create owls staring down at you?  They worked with contemporary artists as an integral part of exhibit re-installations, but they also drew inspiration from the founders and the places they lived and loved. A little web research led me to an site where Claude d’Anthenaise, Chief Curator of the museum, described the museum as a place where:
the staged atmosphere [is] tending to give visitors an unusual experience during which they feel like they have entered the home of a mysterious host or the den of a wolf, deer or wild boar, which is due back at any moment. Kept in a state of expectation, spectators remain on their guard, as attentive as they would be if they were in a forest, watching for any sign that may reveal the presence of a wild animal, which most certainly observes them from its hide-out.
What an inventive way to put us, the visitor, on guard, to make us attentive and watchful, contemplating the meaning of our relationships to the natural world.  And how great to be surprised.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Checking out the Gallerie des Enfants: No French Needed!

I'm in Paris,  having my lunch at the Pompidou Centre's cafe and across the way,  there's the Gallerie des Enfants, the Children's Gallery, which currently has a hands-on exhibit about letters and images.  But what's particularly interesting about an exhibit on that topic is how little text in the conventional sense there is, and how successful it is nonetheless.

Like MassMOCA's children's gallery, which I also love,  the museum assumes that children deserve and should see original artwork and that interactions should spring from that experience.  Here's just a bit of what I observed.

First,  an interactive done with something many of you have in your space where you store things you want to get rid of but don't ever get around to:  an overhead projector.  Children arranged shapes on the projector,  they were projected big so they could see them--but also then,  you could view it from the back, where hands and shapes were in a mysterious dance.  What would happen next?
(This screen was almost as tall as I am).  There were big foam letters to play with.
And lots of other ways to think about letters and shapes.  A big board to flip tiles to make letters;  artwork including letter constructions under glass;  a lightbox art installation of the letter "B" which one mother was intently looking at with her son.
But here's the thing:  there were virtually no labels telling you what to do or what to learn from the experience.  When a little instruction was needed, it was provided graphically.  Below, a pattern recognition and the hot pink illustration was the only information given.
This installation really made me think about my own practice.  Could I do interactives with no instructions just symbols?  Does this require a higher level of trust in your audience?  Do we expect different kinds of learning from art and history organizations?   What do you think?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How About Some Delicious History? Our Annotated Dinner

I've been thinking about food and museums quite a bit lately.  An article on what museums can learn from the Pickle Project is forthcoming in Museums and Social Issues and I've just been accepted as a participant in the National Council on Public History's Working Group Public History and the Local Food Movement at the 2013 conference in Ottawa, where Cathy Stanton of Tufts University and Michelle Moon of the Peabody Essex Museum have put together a great group to explore ways in which those of us who work in public history can forge stronger connections and deepen conversations with local food producers and those who promote local and regional food.

But this past week I had a tremendous opportunity to see food history, the local food movement, and interpretation all wrapped up into one delicious package at an annotated dinner with the Context Travel staff in London.  Art historian and food scholar Janine Catalano worked with St. John,  one of the premier restaurants in London and a pioneer in reintroducing regional British cooking,  to produce a dinner that helped us understand the history of food in London, in a physical sense (St. John is right by Smithfield Market, a livestock or meat market for 800 years), an intellectual sense, a historical sense and a sense of what's new.
"But what is an annotated dinner?"  you may be thinking.  Exactly what it sounds like.  With each course (and there were many)  Janine (above)  artfully guided us through history, using historic images passed around,  brief readings from primary sources, while also helping us learn about the current state of the local food movement in Britain.
What did we eat? All delicious...

  • Radishes and carrots
  • Oysters and crabs--wrote Samuel Pepys in 1661, "I entertained them with talk and oysters until one o'clock and then we sat down to dinner." 
  • Roast bone marrow and parsley salad
  • Pigs head and potato pie--definitely the thing on the menu that sounds the strangest--but absolutely delicious! 
  • Roast beef accompanied both by a reproduction of William Hogarth's 1748 painting The Gate of Calais or O, the Roast Beef of Old England and horseradish.
  • Brussels sprouts greens and potatos 
  • Eccles Cakes and Lancashire Cheese
  • Poached Quince and Brioche
It struck me that this kind of interpretive effort, in a restaurant, is something that many of us who work in museums could undertake.  I think sometimes we're too often stuck in our own places,  worried about our own lack of kitchens, or what will happen in our historic house.  We were in the simplest of rooms,  with white butcher paper on the table,  so no worries about precious artifacts,  but the history--and current issues--came alive. 

In my conversations with Context docents we've been talking about using all of our senses, not just sight,  to convey the meaning and texture of a physical place.  The salty briny taste of oysters;  the slightly unctuous feel of the pig head and potato pie,  and the crispy sound of a radish bite, all made the heritage of British food come alive.

And what could be better than learning new things while gathered around a table with a group of friends?

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Bear Skull, a Witches Charm and Me: Connecting Story, Place and Objects in London

As a part of my work for Context Travel, I’m currently in London with their staff and yesterday, we took a walk along the south side of the Thames;  and today at the British Museum I saw Shakespeare Staging the World, a special exhibition devoted to exploring how Shakespeare’s plays reflected the time when London was emerging as  a world city;  and the ways he shaped a sense of national identity (and, in no small measure, how his sense of the world continues to matter to us today).
It’s meaningful to be in a place and then see objects related to it—even ones that seem small.  Yesterday, our great, enthusiastic guide Carolyn stopped us at Bear Lane and talked about bear-baiting as a spectator sport, even quoting from Samuel Pepys diary entry.  Today in the exhibition I encountered a bear skull, with its teeth filed down, excavated from the site of the new Globe Theater, a handwritten poster for bear baiting, along with a quote from Shakespeare on the same topic.  The place, the object, the document and the literary source, all connected.
On the walk along the Thames, the river served as the ongoing central focus;  from Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind and the docks to the survival of St. Paul’s during World War II despite German bombers ability to follow the reflection of the river during bombing runs. And in the exhibit, Shakespeare's historical plays, Italian plays and more  made me remember what we had seen the day before and provided me with an even deeper context.
It’s the bringing it up today that made it meaningful to me, and I suspect it does to many other people as well.  The Shakespeare exhibition showcased a array of objects,  both glittering, gruesome and everyday, from a shield associated with the funeral of Henry V to a calf's heart stuck with pins used by witches,  from embroidered tapestries to paintings of queens.  But the exhibit felt not just historical but also modern. Video projections or screens feature actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, simply dressed, performing works from Shakespeare.  I watched Paterson Joseph  perform Brutus' speech from Julius Caeser twice, literally compelled to pay attention by his voice and presence--a reminder that Shakespeare's language still matters.
The conclusion of the exhibit brings us to where we—we as visitors, and where we as Britons (not me,  but the audience) are today. The Tempest, the imagined new world of Shakespeare, reveals his interest in those questions of who we are in a changing world.  The exhibit encourages us to ponder, but doesn't answer (nor do I think needs to) why his work continues to have meaning for so many.
The final object is the exhibition is the Robbens Island Bible;  a copy of Shakespeare's works, it was owned by South African prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam and explained to his guards as a Bible.  He shared it with other prisoners and asked them to sign their names next to passages that were particularly meaningful to them.  Here’s the verses Nelson Mandela found particular meaning in this passage from Julius Caeser:
Cowards die many times before their deaths / The valiant never taste of death but once. / Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, / It seems to me most strange that men should fear, / Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come.
In our conversations here we’ve been talking about making walks transformative and what that really means.  Can we change lives through exhibitions or walks?  Maybe or maybe not.  Can we change the way we might look at the world?  Most assuredly.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Where Do Your Exhibit Ideas Come From? Here's One Place

For a long time, I've talked with colleagues about the differences between exhibits that spring from ideas or concepts and those that come from objects.  Both have their strengths (and their weaknesses) and it's useful to consider where you're starting as you think about where you want to go.  But now I'm adding a third category--exhibits that spring from our audiences--not only the kind of crowd-sourcing content that involves voting (see Nina Simon's recent post on this) but those that spring from conversations with our communities.  These audience-driven exhibitions can involve an institution in thinking and re-thinking what we learn along the way, involving us in an iterative, creative process made richer by looking outside the simple frame of our collections.

The Chemung Valley History Museum wanted to develop a new exhibition.  We began the process by talking with several groups of local residents, including a high school history class.  There was uniform agreement  in all the groups that the sort of chronological presentation that characterizes most long-term local history exhibits was not interesting to most people (been there, done that, they said).   But,  said a student, "wouldn't it be cool if you could see how people our age lived?  what their lives were like?"  There have been some other great exhibits on teenagers (Chicago and New Jersey)  but we wanted to see what it might be like here.  We asked non-teenage groups about what they thought--and suddenly their faces lit up and they began discussing their own teenage years.  Teenagers it would be.

Often, this kind of idea languishes until a museum staff finds funding to pursue the next step.  But the team in Elmira decided all the resources needed were enthusiasm and a bit of time.  They held community conversations with several local groups of seniors and set a booth asking for information at the county fair.
This week, we sat down with that information to think about what we'd learned and what the next steps might be.  I'd read the summaries of the conversations and so decided to make objects and location as starting frames.  Armed with our hand post-it notes,  we listed all the objects mentioned in the conversations and began to sort them into thematic groups.  Almost immediately, we noticed something:  clothes were most often mentioned and we recalled a comment early on in the process from a community member, "don't make it just about poodle skirts."   Because, it's the top of mind.   But we wanted to think harder.  We then went back and listed objects that were implied in the conversations and added them (those are the circled ones) to our growing wall.  How many of these 20th objects are in the museum's collections?  Very few.  And we found unexpected objects:  under a theme of work,  lawnmowers, newspapers, diapers all were mentioned in discussions of first jobs. 

What themes did we see in our object post-its?  Independence,  gender, romance, big world issues.  What themes did we not see?  Cultural diversity,  the role of religion, class,  and neighborhoods.   We know those themes exist in this community, but we now know we need to work a bit harder on collecting that information.
We wondered if some of these issues might be found by thinking about places mentioned--so we posted those in a rough county map, above. That helped us see neighborhoods better, but also,  with these two notes below, note the way that the outside world had enormous effects on teenagers.
This iterative process--where we talk to each other and community members,  reflect, and go back out and talk again,  is not only an exhibit building process--it's a community building process.   (and for me, because this is the city where I grew up, a fascinating exercise in individual and collective memory). It's becoming clear that ownership of this exhibit will not be solely the museum's, but rather something that is created--and changed on an ongoing basis-- by the people whose stories we share.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I'm Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

One of my great joys over the last several years has been the opportunity to think more globally about the work that we do in museums and cultural organizations while at the same time, getting a chance to delve deeper into local communities.  I've got three upcoming projects I want to share with you that will offer new ways for me to expand my perspectives and understandings.
For the next six months or so, I'll be working as an education consultant with Context Travel, a small company that creates walking seminars for the intellectually curious in great cities of the world.  This fall I'll be taking tours and meeting their docents (all scholars and specialists) in New York, Philadelphia, Boston here in the states and in London, Rome, Paris, Naples, Florence and Venice.  The tours are amazing in their depth and variety--from Power and Propaganda in Roman Art and Architecture to Charles Dickens, Storyteller of Victorian London;  from The Birth of the Cocktail in  to a Paris Market Walk-- Context Tours provide a very special way to engage deeply in a city.

After my information gathering and learning this fall, I'll be developing resources and workshops for staff and docents,  and returning next spring to London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid,  Berlin and Istanbul, to share ways to enhance what is already a highly regarded venture.  An adventure all around, and an opportunity for me to think more deeply about the ways in which we present the history, art and contemporary life of the places we live and work in.  (and by the way,  European Uncataloged readers:  I will try and squeeze some time in for museums--and would love to meet you as well!)  Look for blog posts inspired by the walks and city visits during November.
 "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library, " wrote Jorge Luis Borges.  A new project of the Museum Association of New York,  the New York Library Association, and Museumwise will work on making that paradise even more creative and interesting for the youngest members of our community.  I'll be managing an IMLS supported planning project to explore the ways that libraries and museums can work together to create engaging history-based exhibitions, sized and geared for early learners using children's rooms at libraries. New York colleagues will be hearing much more about this, but I'm very excited to explore what such a collaboration might look like and what new ideas we can bring to the table by working together.
And finally,  I'm happy to announce my return to Ukraine this winter for a couple weeks in February.  With my dear friend and colleague Gyorgyi Nemeth of Hungary,  I'll be a Cultural Manager in Residence at Eko-Art, a dynamic organizaton,  in Donetsk.  The residency program, developed by the Centre for Cultural Management in L'viv, aims to bring diverse perspectives on culture and the opportunity for a productive exchange of ideas.  Specifically, we'll be working with young people on imagining innovative ways to share the industrial history of Donetsk--a city where that history is so important that a statue of a coal miner welcomes you into the city.  (And Ukrainian colleagues--I'm attempting to sneak a few days in Kyiv as well, so I hope to see many of you!)

Top two photos via the Context website;  middle and bottom photos via Flickr.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Banish the Boring

I'm just heading back from the American Association for State and Local History conference in Salt Lake City where I facilitated a session called Banish the Boring,  with the hope of getting my museum and history colleagues to think more deeply about the ways they do presentations (particularly at conferences) and be more experimental in our approach.  We know our museum audiences don't learn most effectively when faced with a dark room and dense powerpoint slides.  But it still mystifies me that we persist in making many (far too many!) conference sessions work this way.   So I thought I would start this 8:30 AM session with voting as you walked in the door--you got asked to vote for three top questions and then small groups worked to find new ideas for those top three that can help solve these common issues.  Here'sthe real-time solutions participants suggested. Special thanks for Alice Parman for not only notetaking but also typing up and sending me the notes--a really luxury as a session follow-up!   I think these provide great guides for rethinking sessions--but the larger question is how we can rethink the overall conference experience to enhance learning and connections. But that's the subject of another post!  If you have suggestions on the specifics or on the overall conference experience, please share in the comments.

Am I afraid of using humor in a professional presentation? 
• Establish your authenticity—then be as funny/real as you want. Authenticity relates to your own comfort level.
• Use video clips, etc.
• Use drama
• If a joke falls flat, acknowledge it. Just keep moving forward.
• Arrange with a friend to help you out in case it falls flat.
• Humor should be relevant to your topic.

How do I tactfully cut off someone who is taking over the session?
• Engage a person who’s not talking: “We haven’t heard from you yet.”
• Parking lot technique: after the session we’ll go into more detail.
• Subtly cue a fellow panelist that it’s time to wrap up
• Universalize—summarize
• Let’s meet afterward
• If you’re passing a mike around, hold onto it yourself
• Ringer(s) in audience to intervene
• Come with prepared questions to move things in a different direction
• Move around. Get closer to the person. Physical intimidation. Do what a Rotary president does when a speaker goes on too long.

How can I start a session with a bang?
• Use question or metaphor
• Pictures of things that look similar but are different
• Tell a personally engaging story
• Talk about something you did that fell on its face
• Ask audience members to reflect, write
• Give them a question, they write the answer; same question/written answer at end of presentation, have they changed perspective?
• Setting the stage
• Move people around
• Begin with anecdote, technology, video
• This is an open meeting, you’re in charge of the agenda
• Play music really loud (Nina Simon)
• Hire a high school marching band

How do I make my session description sound interesting, but accurate?
• Know your audience
• Be as accurate and specific as possible
• Fun things, active verbs
• Key buzzwords, but not too many
• Catchy title that refers to topic—alliteration, humor
• Write creatively to awaken interest by connecting to readers’ needs
• Session descriptions as little narratives/stories. See Ira Glass, What makes a good story? on YouTube

How can I develop small group activities that get to the point of the session?
• Copy what Linda did in this session
• Ask questions, group provides the answers
• Group builds something, solves a problem
• Engage people in something related to the topic
• Goal of activity must be established first
• Find out what people want to know
• Written instructions
• Talk to people like it’s a group of friends
• Speaker bingo: head shots of presenters, if you hear or meet 4 you get bingo, then you are entered in a drawing. Two-line bios of presenters on other side of bingo card.  (Comment: don’t read bios to the audience—especially if those bios are already in the program!)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Upcoming This Week

Just a quick post to say that I'll be busy as a bee this upcoming week, with lots on my plate at the American Association for State and Local History annual conference in Salt Lake City.   My last round (for now, perhaps) of working with a great group of field service providers and others on the StEPs curricula will be on Wednesday.  Over the last three years,  I've really enjoyed getting to know colleagues from states big (Alaska) and small (Connecticut) and hope all those connections continue.

On Thursday,  I hope you'll come find Rainey Tisdale and I from 12:00-1:30 in the South Foyer of the convention center.  At the meet-up--open to all--we'll be sharing what we've learned so far in our work on museums and creativity and then together, we'll work on a brainstorming an activity designed to help all of us find new ways to approach one of the core functions of history museums and historic sites.   Also on Thursday, I'm looking forward to learning about Conner Prairie's transformation and the many ways that history museums can use Historypin (I'm a huge fan already!).

Wake up early on Friday morning to make my session called Banish the Boring at 8:30.  It's pretty nervy to title a session that,  but I'm planning that, all of us working together,  can come up with some pretty great ways to make conference sessions--or any other kind of presentations--not boring,  but rather,  turn them into what my colleague Stuart Chase  calls the Three Bs:  brisk, bodacious and bold!   Need an inspiration?  Try Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.    Later that day, Rainey's chairing a session with Trevor Jones of the Kentucky Historical Society and me where we hope to engage all of you in a lively conversation about whether museums need objects?  What does the 21st century hold for those things in our collections storage?  Or for those things in our community and not yet in our museums?

And finally,  another morning session on Friday,  an expansion from last year's webinar for StEPS--in an informal workshop format, we'll work on telling a good stories--and how those good stories can transform our institutions and our visitors.

As always,  I love to meet colleagues and bounce ideas around.  If you'll be at AASLH and want to meet for coffee or a quick meal,  just let me know!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Zoo-ming Into Labels in San Diego

Last weekend, I had the chance to visit the San Diego Zoo and was really struck by the variety of interpretive labeling strategies and designs in play.  Competing with lions and tigers and bears is tough stuff,  but I did see audiences of all ages engaging with some of the labels (in between doing things like making faces at baby hippos).  Although many of the labels were pretty traditional, the range of approaches and willingness to experiment a bit were worth observing--and provided lots of ideas that can be scaled for different kinds (and budgets) of exhibits.

So here's a bit of what I saw.  Above, the lesson that interactives are not just for kids, or even just for families as a woman poses in the fake iceberg in the polar bear section.  Below, part of an interactive showing how much meat polar bears eat daily,  using the easy to understand metaphor of a refrigerator.
The zoo had a number of fairly complicated messages about species conservation, climate change and other ecological issues to convey, and they did so in a number of ways ranging from the very simple to the complex.
This is a section of what, in a museum, we might refer to as a tombstone label, with the basic information about each species, but with the bar showing the range of endangerment of each animal.  The label below (really a large almost sculptural installation) talked about CO2 levels.
The zoo seemed to use, and appreciate the impact of sculptural installations.  Some of them were realistic animals to pose by,  but others just generated a sense of play or wonder.  Below,  metal monkey cut-outs along a walkway;  a snake skeleton, and a detail of paving.
Different areas of the zoo had distinctly different feels and incorporated designs and textures along with text and images to make those distinctions clear.  And in the popular panda area, a marker board like those found in restaurants keep visitors up to date and encouraged them to check out the panda-cam from home.
The zoo is a place where memories are made, and plenty of places were available for families to pose for photos:  on sculptures, behind big cutouts or playing with a big pull-out interactive.
And finally, two things that made me laugh.  First, a zookeeper, looking surprised as he's caught in the wild and second, a label with a caution I'd never seen before.  Clever and useful!